A concert by Sufjan Stevens assumed the form of a somber wake Tuesday at the Midland theater.
“Carrie & Lowell,” the new album by the Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter, is a set of grim elegies that memorialize his troubled mother who died in 2012. Stevens and a four-piece backing band performed the entire song cycle for a sympathetic audience of about 2,500.
“What is that song you sing for the dead?” Stevens asked during “Death with Dignity.”
As if he had been unable to properly answer the question, Stevens devised the new set of deeply personal songs documented on “Carrie & Lowell.” Like a haunted mourner seeking solace, Stevens immersed himself in the material on Tuesday.
After the conclusion of the intricate requiem, Stevens explained his fascination with what he characterized as “the occupation of death,” an obsession heightened by his visit to the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial earlier in the day.
“Death is sort of the greatest occupation of all,” he said. “It resides in us. We are occupied by it from the day that we are born.”
Stevens implored the audience to remember the lives of friends and family members who have died.
“The fruit of their lives becomes the fruit of ours,” he said.
Stevens has earned the right to be indulgent. As one of the most formidable artists in popular music of the last 15 years, he’s cultivated an audience that admires his elegant art songs that probe his Christian faith and question the cultural values of the new millennium.
“Carrie & Lowell” might be the best of Stevens’ seven albums. Although a few of its profoundly spiritual songs might better suited for church basements, a shadowy backlit production and elegant chamber-folk and electro-pop arrangements helped the material fill the cavernous Midland theater.
Unlike the opening act Little Scream, Stevens never came across as frail or delicate in spite of his shaky falsetto and quiet sensitivity. The vast majority of the audience was prepared to defend him. Occasional inappropriate yelps of enthusiasm were met with the disapproving shushing of more reverent fans.
In addition to the handful of longtime favorites that concluded his two-hour performance, Stevens gave the audience two cathartic opportunities to pump their fists.
“Blue Bucket of Gold” concluded with an extended space jam worthy of Pink Floyd. And during a robust version of “Fourth of July, ” Stevens repeatedly sang the phrase “we’re all going to die” with triumphant glee.
Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou); Death With Dignity; Should Have Known Better; Drawn to the Blood; All of Me Wants All of You; Eugene; John My Beloved; The Only Thing; Fourth of July; No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross; Carrie & Lowell; The Owl and the Tanager; In the Devil’s Territory; To Be Alone With You; Futile Devices; Sister; Blue Bucket of Gold; Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois; For the Widows in Paradise; For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti; The Dress Looks Nice on You; John Wayne Gacy, Jr., Chicago